CATS EATING MAN?
Most of us are familiar with the tales of the reclusive cat lover who died in a locked house or apartment and whose starving cats began to consume her body. Often it is viewed as her just desserts - to be consumed by the animals whose company she valued over human company - and excused as an act of desperation by her pets.
More recently, soldiers in Najaf, Fallujah, Bosnia and other war-torn regions have brought back tales of feral cats eating bodies of the fallen. Some of these veterans have been so disturbed by the sight that they have developed an irrational fear or hatred of friendly pet cats back home.
What is so horrifying about the sight, or even thought, of cats (or dogs) eating dead humans?
CAT THE PET
In cat-keeping countries, cats are viewed as friendly domestic pets whose predatory instincts have been curbed, eliminated or confined to small prey. They also scavenge from bins and unattended plates. While many owners try to deter these behaviours, they are well aware that cats instinctively hunt and are attracted to fresh carrion. This is the acceptable view of cat the predator and scavenger.
Apart from owners of barn cats and those who profit from kitty-mills, most owners view cats as family members. Some owners erroneously scribe human emotions and motives to their cats (anthropomorphism). Quite how cats relate to humans is debated, but they do not regard us as prey. Cats lick us as they would lick other cats, they play with us and they often cuddle up with us to sleep. Those owners who accept their pets as non-human family members with non-human behaviours would, in general, still not want to think of cats eating the flesh of their caregivers.
Even cat-the-pet sometimes blots its copybook. There have been cases of DIY or gardening enthusiasts severing a finger or toe and the family cat pouncing on this small morsel (I have met one gentleman whose accidentally severed thumb was consumed by the cat).
CAT THE SCAVENGER
Abandoned and feral cats, especially those is war-torn areas, rarely have regular sources of food. They must scavenge whatever sources of food they find - dustbins, handouts and dead bodies (including their own species). Desperate ferals have been seen eating soiled nappies and sanitary napkins as well as bread, fruit and vegetables that cats cannot digest. Some have resorted to eating earth just to assuage their hunger. Post mortems of feral cats have found some to have stomachs full of insects.
Bodies of larger animals pose problems as the domestic cat's jaws are designed for small prey hence they are most likely to tackle the extremities such as fingers and toes. Although cats normally avoid decomposing flesh to avoid food poisoning, cats with no other options will try to eat a dead body that has begun to rot and soften.
At the 1992 American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference in New Orleans, a forensic pathologist stated that individuals living alone sometimes died unexpectedly and unnoticed. He claimed that, in his experience, a pet dog would go for several days before it resorted to eating the owner's body. A pet cat would wait only a day or two. What he didn't mention was that cats are obligate carnivores and, unlike dogs (which are more omnivorous), cats cannot consume other potential foodstuffs that might be lying around the home (fruit, veg, cookies). For a dog, the corpse might be a last resort, but for an obligate carnivore, it may be the first resort.
Like other scavengers, those cats are doing a clean-up job. Without scavengers, we would be knee-deep in rotting flesh. Even when bodies are decently buried, it is being invisibly consumed.
RESPECT FOR THE DEAD
In many societies, human bodies are considered sacred or at least are to be respected. Tales of mutilated or molested human corpses shock most of us. Some societies find medical or forensic post mortems unacceptable as the procedure is tantamount to mutilation. Our dead are consigned to the earth or to crematorium flames cleaned up, intact or hidden from view. Many accident victims look more presentable after the attentions of the undertaker.
The same dignity of burial or cremation is accorded to many pets as they are seen as family members. In contrast, animal corpses are dismembered or discarded. Where they are cleared away, it is generally for hygiene purposes.
Burial and cremation of our dead serves practical purposes. Decomposing bodies generally smell bad. Predators and scavengers are attracted by the smell and would have posed a threat to early humans. Decomposing bodies allow bacteria to breed and could lead to contamination of food and water. If the person died of an infectious disease, it makes sense to bury or burn the remains to control the spread of infection. In modern times, many people like to know where their deceased family members are in order to pay respect to them (usually on important anniversaries). In some ways, it brings us comfort to treat the deceased as though they are still alive.
Nature does not make the distinction between human and animal after death. Humans and animals are meat. Regardless of humans having higher intelligence, consciousness or souls (depending on your beliefs), humans are still a collection of muscles, bones, skin and sinew. Nature is economical - bodies of the dead, regardless of species, are consumed by the living. Most species quickly lose interest in their own dead.
In some cultures, past and present, excarnation (sky burial) is practised. The body of the deceased is exposed to predators. Later, the defleshed bones are gathered and buried. Excarnation is surrounded by ritual and dignity, something that is missing when scavengers eat a dead person in a back alley.
CONSUMPTION BY ANIMALS AS PUNISHMENT
Under some penal codes, criminals were left on gibbets to be pecked by crows as a gory warning to deter others - not only the threat of execution, but also the threat of not being decently laid to rest. I've read historical accounts of an Indian Muslim executed (or murdered, depending on your point of view) by a non-Muslim where parts of the victim were thrown to dogs. By being eaten by an unclean animal, the deceased was apparently denied paradise. This act had a great impact on the deceased's family and friends who feared for their own souls.
There are many tales of underworld characters who have disappeared without trace, presumably fed to hogs (pigs).
Where there is no ritual purpose, there is a stigma to consumption by animals. It is seen as disrespectful to the deceased, an insult to the deceased's family and a warning to others that punishment will extend beyond death.
Part of our outrage at accounts of human corpses being eaten by dogs, cats, rats, pigs, crows etc is the thought that the deceased person has a family who care about what happens to the body and by the necessity to give death some meaning (or to comfort the living) through ritual. Dead people are generally not discarded with the rubbish.
What makes the thought of cats and dogs eating corpses so horrifying is our inability to reconcile cat-the-pet with cat-the-scavenger at the same time as understanding that our bodies are meat and bone. Despite human technology and culture setting humans apart from "lesser animals", we find it hard that nature treats us all the same after death.
Having sanitised the disposal of our dead, we are shocked at seeing human bodies being consumed by scavengers. We are not shocked at nature documentaries showing scavengers consuming dead beasts, but we are unable to consider a dead human in the same light as a dead antelope. Most of us want human dead to be treated with dignity, to do otherwise offends our sensibilities.
Even where it is acceptable for scavengers to consume dead human flesh, that practise is made acceptable by rituals. Where consumption by scavengers is not sanctioned by religious beliefs, it is offensive to us.
A PERSONAL VIEW
For my part, I'm not disturbed at the thought of my dead body being consumed by scavengers - after all, my mind and my sense of propriety won't be there to be worried about it. My family, and unrelated well-meaning humans, might be less keen at my remains being treated in what they consider undignified manner. What makes me an individual is my mind, something that will no longer present after death.